Every year in Ethiopia, around the middle of the year, the Internet is shutdown. This also happens to be the same period of time that students in the East African country are writing what is their end-year high school exams.

As soon as the exams were over, just like that, the Internet was reported to be back on in Ethiopia. It wasn’t just the Internet that was off in Ethiopia but also the SMS service. In case you are not aware of the details of what has now become an annual occurrence, Ethiopia’s government hit the Internet kill switch over concerns that students will use social media and the web to cheat during national high school exams. This is the same reason that Somalia provided in May 2019 for a planned Internet shutdown.

During this same period of late May to early June 2019, we also observed as Sudan’s military council admitted to shutting down the Internet as people held peaceful pro-democracy protests in Khartoum.

It has not only become a regular occurrence in Africa, but it has also become somewhat relatively easy for authorities to shut down the Internet to a point where you’d start thinking that an actual Internet kill switch exists.

The truth is, it doesn't exist.

The way Internet shutdowns have become regular and easy to effect you'd think it takes the push of a button to switch it off across a whole country the same way you would switch off your home or office router.

How to shut down the Internet in an African country

Instead of an Internet kill switch, what typically (if not always) happens is that a government ministry that oversees telecommunications will issue and official directive (letter) to all telecommunications companies operating in the country to either restrict certain Internet services or completely cut off Internet access for customers.

You could, if you wanted to call that directive the kill switch because it carries many implications if not obeyed (it’s like a veiled threat to telecommunications companies that if they don’t do as told, their licenses will be revoked. In fact, in some countries this has been the case although it is often communicated off the record).

Added to that, over the past decade, a pattern around Internet shutdowns in Africa has emerged, typically a government will provide one of the following reasons for shutting down the Internet:

  • national security is under threat,
  • prevent students from cheating during exams,
  • to calm down civil unrest.

Another pattern that has also emerged is the period around which Internet shutdowns take place.

With the exception of Somalia and Ethiopia shutting down the Internet during high school national exams, Internet shutdowns typically take place when:

  • there are elections,
  • citizens are protesting against a sitting government and/or president,
  • citizens complaining about living standards.

How can we punish African governments for shutting down the Internet?

Now, with this as clearly our new normal, shouldn’t we think of other ways of keeping the Internet on given that no matter how many articles we write, no matter how many times the United Nations condemns an Internet shutdown, they still persist?

Perhaps governments should be punished at an ICANN level, where allocation of IP addresses are restricted? But this unfortunately also punishes citizens and businesses who are just victims in all this.

Give a thought on how we can ensure that in future, given that we have established a pattern, Internet shutdowns do not happen in African countries.

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